A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they're actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it - schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years - by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.

Why?

“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they...engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it's time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.